If there’s any one thing theater-goers have been missing during these past 15 months, it is surely the sense of communion: that perfect moment when the confluence of actors onstage and viewers in the audience reaches a sort of unity of feeling—a gasp, a sigh, a laugh, a repressed sob that ripples throughout the house. That sense that we’re all in this together.
San Francisco’s wonderfully prolific trickster playwright, Christopher Chen, aims to conjure that feeling by digital means in his latest play, “Communion,” a solo show performed live (in a manner of speaking) on Zoom by much-loved local actor Stacy Ross, who apparently collaborated with Chen on the 65-minute piece. That’s the thing about “Communion”—what seems “apparent” may be an illusion. Such craftiness is Chen’s trademark.
Things start off slowly, with a prolonged introduction, in this American Conservatory Theater offering, helmed by artistic director Pam MacKinnon.
Ross, who plays herself and is speaking to us from her own home, welcomes us warmly. Looking totally her idiosyncratic self in pigtails and a hat, she gazes earnestly into the camera and talks about her past as an actor arriving here from L.A. in the ’90s for a gig at Cal Shakes, her feeling of profound isolation during this past pandemic year and more. And she discusses the genesis of this very piece—the subject, she says, is right there in the title—and meanders through various stages of her own life and career.
“Follow your bliss,” she recommends, “but keep your eye on the periphery.” Acting, she observes, is about knowing yourself; when she first started out, she mistakenly thought it was about being someone else. Bits and pieces of the rambling introduction will take on resonance later. This is an interactive show, with audience members in their own respective Zoom boxes in gallery view, sometimes muted, sometimes unmuted, gamely following Ross’ instructions. There’s even advance homework: We are asked to think of several things, including our guiding principles for life and who in our past we’ve unwisely “let into our heads.” Audience volunteers are asked to share some of their answers, and the ones who do are elaborately praised by Ross for their bravery and vulnerability.
And there are occasional “breakout rooms” for discussion among smaller groups. Two other women and I discussed where we’d travel if we suddenly won a fortune.
It was pleasant to see and actually talk to other audience members and to hear some of their personal stories, but it takes quite a long time for the very short play to progress beyond that.
However, things start to get more interesting when Ross discusses certain time-honored techniques used “to build communion” among audiences, the type of techniques used by magicians. By the end, does Chen achieve his goal of creating a sense of communion among the audience? Well, the night I watched, several of us heads-in-boxes, complete strangers to one another, lingered to discuss the show. If that isn’t communion, what is?
If you want to watch
Who: American Conservatory Theater
When: Through June 27